By Kela S. Roberts
“We were waiting at the beach around 3am, everyone is soaking wet, the girls are tired, but we couldn’t rest we had to make it to San Fernando by morning so they would pile into my car, everyone as wet as they were, pools in the backseat, and we would have to drive from Cedros to San Fernando, where they’d be picked up by the people who arranged for them, they were tired, but we had to go” – Marcus, The Driver
Imagine, if you can, you’re on a small boat, going almost 50 miles an hour in the dark of night. You’re freezing, your clothes soaking, the boat is bumping, jumping, flying over the choppy sea of the Gulf of Paria. You’re surrounded by strangers, your countrymen, but strangers nonetheless, and all are silent. You paid thousands to get smuggled on this trip, most of your savings, there’s no guarantee that you will make it to the new land safely, but you do it anyway. All you have is water, all your clothes in a plastic bag, and your gritty need for survival. Picture it, feel it.
Becoming a refugee, migrating in times of national strife is something most Trinbagonians have very little knowledge of, the semantics evade us from our privileged seats of relative countrywide stability. The truth is that it is gruelling, exhausting. It takes everything from you, to move, to take your life elsewhere, to drop everything you know, everyone you love, and move to a strange place, with even stranger people who may not understand you, some determined to misunderstand you.
Many times, women and girls, specifically, are given opportunities to travel, to come work in Trinidad and Tobago, some with a faint guess that they were being sent to work in the hospitality sector. It didn’t matter what they were before, doctors, teachers, policewomen, students, work means money, money means survival. Their relative popularity in Trinbago’s bars is double edged of course, many of these bars moonlight as brothels, many of the bar girls expected to serve the patrons in more ways than one. This is the reality of the hospitality industry many migrants enter into, sometimes unknowingly, sometimes fully aware, for survival.
The whole nature of our sex industry is murky, confusing, and illegal, making the women who enter it as workers, subject to a unique kind of visibility, where they are unprotected by our health services and law enforcement, but their professions are well known, often subjecting them to discrimination and othering by both the men and women of our society.
I had the opportunity to speak with someone who has had first hand experience with the hushed, nitty gritty details of transporting the migrant sex industry workers from our country’s unofficial ports to their desired destinations. Through his few accounts, and from the stories of the people he has met, I hope to bring some faint light on the story of the migrant sex worker, her struggles, her strength, and the culture within this twin island that makes her such a highly sought after prize.
“Men in Trinidad, see, there has always been this understanding you know, you see a Spanish and you get these ideas, especially if she works in a bar or something. Men, from all over, all professions like those girls you know they look exotic, they don’t look like our women” – Marcus, the driver
Marcus detailed the entire process of smuggling migrant women and girls across the borders, how small and cramped the boats would be, how sometimes they would get caught in rain on the pitch black glassy sea of the Gulf of Paria, no land for miles. He detailed how some women and girls, came with nothing but a knapsack and their cellphones, unable to speak a sentence in English, surrounded by boatmen, most times much older than them, men they were unfamiliar with, men who were well armed with rifles, trusting that they would make it to the shores of the southern coast.
One would have to possess a certain amount of determination and fearlessness to make the journey he noted. The mad rush from the coast to the points of drop off was where he came in, he would take them to where they were to be picked up by whoever arranged for them to come, where they would go to be housed, maybe meet up with family, if they had any. He would talk to the women, they would try, if they could, to tell him about their stories, one he remembers in particular.
“ There was this woman, she spoke a bit of English, she was telling me that she was a police officer back in Venezuela, and she came to make a bit of money for her family back home, we kept in touch and she told me more of her story. She said that she thought she was coming to work in a restaurant, when she found out that she was going to work at a bar she started crying. She said she heard stories of how people treat the bar workers here, what they expect, how they see Venezuelan women in Trinidad”
Trinbagonians have a reputation it would seem, one that precedes them. It is a sort of entitlement, born of a unique mixture of patriarchy and colourism, that ferments, and bursts to the surface as unhindered, wanton sexual entitlement, and a disrespect for migrant sex workers, and migrant women in general. The notion of the ‘exotic spanish woman’, her fair skin, her wavy long hair, her spanish tongue, her inability to effectively converse in our language, making her seem ‘simple’ is a gross oversimplification of the often diverse group of people migrating to our shores, for many reasons, including sex work.
It a result of fetishisation birthed in the romanisation and sexualisation of migrant women as these sirens, Jezebels, by the men of Trinidad and Tobago and comes from the upholding of certain colourist and Eurocentric beauty standards that some of them just so happen to meet. The alien and the unfamiliar titillate the senses, it’s seen as better, enthralling, perfect for a fling, for a good time, one time. Their appeal also comes from their social standing in the new society in which they are integrated.
Many migrant women often enter into sex work due to financial need, with not many other opportunities for work and as such, as research suggests, are placed in a doubly precarious situation vis-à-vis state authorities, facing additional discrimination and violence.
In a Canadian based study conducted by Goldenberg et al, women who engaged in short-term mobility or migration were more likely to experience health and structural vulnerabilities such as condom refusal by clients, and barriers to healthcare, due to increased stigma, coming from the perception placed on them, just by being migrant women.
It is precisely because of their preceived vulnerabilities as often undocumented or criminalised persons within the country, that they are treated with stigma, often seen as powerless and are prone to harassment, both at their places of work and outside of them.
The Covid 19 pandemic has also posed new challenges to these women, as with the closure of their typical daytime places of work like bars, many of them face financial difficulties, in addition to the xenophobia coming from the wider society, seeing them as scapegoats for the spread of the virus.
“ some of the girls that travel to work in the entertainment (sex) industry do it because its lucrative, they know of the stigma yes but it provides a certain lifestyle that they cant afford otherwise. Most of the time getting job permits, papers, it takes time. People need to eat now, and they find a freedom in it” – Marcus, the driver
Far from painting the migrant sex workers of T&T as a homogenous, reluctant group of victims, I want to highlight the nuances of their particular circumstance. It takes a lot to make and survive the trip to our shores, not knowing if you will arrive safely, not knowing what kind of reception you will receive, not knowing the language of your new home. The avenues for work offer the women who choose to move, very little choices but choices nonetheless and we owe it to them to respect their humanity and their choices. With many societal phenomena, there is a juxtaposition of conflicting but simultaneously truthful facts surrounding the situation.
There are, absolutely, cases of exploitation of migrant sex workers within the sex indutry, cases of women being misled as to what they might be coming to do in this country, where they might be coming to work. Cases of them being sexually harassed, raped, even beaten by their clients due to lack of protection, stories of the sexually entitled men of this country, reading their very otherness as a sexual invitation.
However, the sex industry itself is fueled by many consenting, autonomous migrant women, some of them finding out about the lucrative nature the underbelly of our entertainment industry, many of them taking the harrowing risk to travel and choosing to provide their services, bartending, stripping, and full service sex work to fund their lifestyles, to support their families. It is our duty to consider both aspects of this under regulated, yet prolific industry. Much of the harm inflicted on the migrant sex workers of this country can be avoided if we as a society and our authorities are more forthcoming about our perceived ‘vices’.
The sex industry is not going anywhere, many people, people you may know, are regular patrons, rather than ignoring the growing sex industry, and stigmatizing sex workers, effort should be made to understand both. Effort should be made to provide health service and decriminalise the legal status of migrant women in the sex industry, laws around their protection should be prioritised, avenues for further integration into our society and financial opportunity should be considered.
Furthermore, societal reflection on the nature of fetishisation of these migrant women is important. The hostility and hypersexualiation they face is beyond just legal status, it would require a certain amount of society wide honesty about how influenced we are by certain Eurocentric beauty standards, honesty about our eager xenophobia and the unchecked unique nature of the misogyny of our culture.
To move forward, to protect the sex workers of Trinidad and Tobago, what we would need is honesty about ourselves, what we do, who we are. We should foster the need to humanise and protect, make it even greater than our need for lust, for enjoyment.
Complexities of Short-Term Mobility for Sex Work and Migration among Sex Workers: Violence and Sexual Risks, Barriers to Care, and Enhanced Social and Economic Opportunities, https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11524-014-9888-1
Marcus B. – Driver during the years 2017-2018 for migrant women coming to work in Trinidad, Identities have been changed.
Safeguarding the human rights and dignity of undocumented migrant sex workers, PICUM, 2019.
What a Way to Make a Living: VIOLENCE AND HARASSMENT FACED BY MIGRANT WOMEN IN THE WORLD OF WORK IN ARGENTINA, BRAZIL, PERU, COLOMBIA, GUATEMALA AND MEXICO. Source:https://www.nswp.org/sites/default/files/what_a_way_to_make_a_living.pdf
Kela S. Roberts is an International Relations and History graduate. She is a freelance writer and a member of the Feminitt Caribbean writing team, with a passion for understanding gender issues and furthering women’s liberation.